She taught me to drive, the summer I turned 15 and a half, which is when you could get a learner’s permit in Arizona. My parents tried. My first session, with my mother, ended with mom screaming and trying to grab the steering wheel from the passenger seat, even though I was only driving in circles in a shopping mall parking lot which, due to blue laws, was empty on a Sunday afternoon. The second teaching attempt, by my father, ended with him swearing at me for being hopelessly stupid. I had missed out on driver’s ed. That was offered the previous summer, when everyone else in my class at school had their learner’s permits. I was a year younger, and student-teaching during the week, and so I was on my own that summer for the driving.
Enter Donna, and an easy, graceful, generous offer to teach me to drive. Ten years older than me, the only girl of my five Tucson cousins, Donna was the first woman I had looked up to: tall, legs that went on forever, thick brown hair. And cool. I was not cool. She was a genuine hippie, who smoked and drank and partied and wore hot pants and high heels and tons of eyeliner. Except when she wore cut-off jeans and wild print blouses and went barefoot everywhere in her awesome Navajo and Hopi jewelry. I remember her babysitting me and my sisters one night while my parents were out to dinner. I was maybe eight; Donna was going to a party after my parents got home. The idea of a party that would begin that late was something I knew only from movies and television. I didn’t know anyone who would attend a party like that. Except Donna.
She showed up at our front door on a Saturday morning, dressed in cut-offs and a boho print blouse, and handed me the keys to her four-speed Datsun. I got in the driver’s seat; she explained the clutch and gears. And then she pulled a beer out of the six-pack in the bag on the floor on the passenger side, reclined her seat, flipped her sunglasses off the top of her head, and told me to start driving.
When you’re 15-and-a-half, and as awkward as it is possible to be at that age, your coolness factor goes way up when you’re cruising Tucson on a Saturday morning with your semi-drunk and much more beautiful cousin in the car. The only time she reached over was to honk at cute guys. I know I looked panicked the day that she was seriously willing to pick up a couple of totally built guys unloading a truck. The alcohol left her quite relaxed about my driving errors: left turns I never should have attempted; grinding the gears (“that’s not the best thing for the car, T.”); endless stalls because I would take my foot off the clutch at stop lights (all of the cars in my family were automatics).
Her attitude gave me the confidence that my parents’ panicked criticism couldn’t, and to this day I am a self-assured driver, and grateful that I learned on a manual transmission – never more so than on a business trip to Eastern Europe a few years ago, when a local colleague dangled a set of car keys in front of our group, and said that he couldn’t drive the two hours to our destination, as his license had been suspended. As the other members of our group looked at each other in horror, I took the keys, got in, engaged the clutch, and maneuvered out of the tight parallel parking space. Without stalling.
I was much older before I realized the implications of those beers. And her many car accidents. And the overt and sometimes misplaced sexuality. The arrests. And the stays at Betty Ford, Steps, and every other decent rehab place that existed at the time. And finally, her descent into a long illness that left her dead, far too young.
And I was far too young to understand some of the things she said to me. That there are things that happen to a person that cannot be undone. That people take things, as if they are on loan, things that can’t be returned.
I get it now, Donna. And I still look up to you. For your boldness and your spirit. I don’t know if I ever thanked you properly for teaching me to drive, but I am so very grateful. (I wish you could have seen me coming off the mesa in Telluride in the rain. You would have been so proud. The other people in the car said I had nerves of steel.) I remember you often.
Always, and most particularly, when I engage the clutch.
© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.